Merryn Somerset Webb talks to author, peer and ex-banker Matt Ridley, about how, despite what many people want to believe, nobody is in control of the world economy – and that’ s exactly how it should be.
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Merryn: Hi, I’m Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek, and I am here today with Matt Ridley, who’s a columnist in The Times, also a very prolific author and a member of the House of Lords. His most recent book – this one, The Evolution of Everything – is what we’re going to talk about mostly today. So, Matt, can I just start by asking you about the genesis of this book. What was the original idea behind it?
Matt: Well, I’ve been struck for years by the parallels between ideas about evolution and ideas about free markets, and the notion that spontaneous order occurs in the world. That a rainforest doesn’t have anyone in charge of it, and nor does the English language and nor does the world economy. They emerge with complexity and purpose and sophistication through the interactions of lots of individuals, without any final design in mind. And so I wanted to explore how far you could take that idea in terms of explaining human society as an evolutionary phenomenon. As something that changes incrementally, changes gradually. Changes by trial and error, which is another word for natural selection. And that ends up producing complex, purposeful design.
It’s been a long struggle to get people to get used to the idea that the eye wasn’t designed by a designer. I think we’re making the same mistake in terms of the economy
Merryn: Now, a lot of people do think there is somebody in charge of the world economy. A group of central bankers, the IMF, the World Bank, whatever it is. If you ask the vast majority of people: “Who’s in charge of the global economy?” they will come up with a name, be it Janet Yellen or whoever it is. They will have an idea of someone who’s running the show. You think no-one’s running the show.
Matt: Well, in the end we still kind of hanker after someone running the biological show too. Some people are more creationist than others. But, you know, it’s been a long struggle to get people to get used to the idea that the eye wasn’t designed by a designer. So I think we’re making the same mistake in terms of the economy, in terms of society. In other words, we are basically being a bit creationist. We’re using what Dan Dennett calls a ‘skyhook’. That is a sort of magical explanation that it’s top down. That in some sense it’s being directed.
And as Frederick Bastiat said in the 1850s: how does Paris get fed? How do all these millions of people get enough food every day and the right kinds of food just when they want it? Not because someone’s doing a brilliant job of planning the food for Paris, but because of all the interactions of lots of different individuals. And that sort of idea that nobody’s in charge of the economy any more than anybody’s in charge of the English language is quite a hard one to get across. And, as you say, people are still basically subservient to the myth that either we should give all the credit to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the governor of the Bank of England or the chairman of the Federal Reserve…
Merryn: And the blame, of course. And the blame.
Matt: Or that we should give them all the blame. But of course in both senses we’re wrong. You know, they are lucky to be riding the wave of this. Now, it’s true that you can mess up an economic system quite badly with a top down intervention. I mean the North Koreans show this every day, as it were…
Merryn: Yes. Another bad harvest in North Korea I see, so again…
Merryn: Korea going hungry.
Matt: Exactly. It takes a lot of doing, but it is possible to really mess up an economic system.
Merryn: Now you’ve written about this in terms of the crisis in 2008, where really you think – and I think you’re right – that that crisis was caused by the authorities as opposed to by the market.
Matt: Well, that’s right. Now this is an unfashionable view, and I had a ringside seat at that. But the more I’ve studied what actually happened and gone back and looked, the more I realised that actually that unsustainable credit boom, particularly in the sub-prime housing market in the United States, was not just a result of deliberate policy decisions, but was actually the purpose of deliberate policy decisions. The most glaring one… I mean, you’ve got the Chinese managing the exchange rate in such a way that you get Western borrowings and Eastern savings. You get an imbalance there. That’s part of it…
Merryn: So the Chinese are pulling in a whole load of cash that they’re then lending back to the Americans on the cheap. So money is too cheap for the Americans.
The sub-prime housing market in the United States was not just a result of deliberate policy decisions, but was actually the purpose of deliberate policy decisions
Matt: Exactly. So… Where money is too cheap, you will get asset bubbles. It’s not because somebody suddenly invented greed. You know, it’s not because suddenly people have decided to become more greedy. It’s because the opportunity to raise money cheaply is there. And then on top of that you’ve got the Federal Reserve basically bailing out the stockmarket whenever it gets into trouble for more than a decade.
Merryn: Ever since the dotcom boom.
Matt: Particularly since the dotcom boom. The ‘Greenspan Put’ I think is the expression you guys use for it.
Merryn: We do.
Matt: But then over and above that you’ve got this quite extraordinary policy of forcing up the lending to people who can’t afford to borrow.
Merryn: Now this is really intriguing. This happened during the Clinton administration…
Matt: Well Clinton and Bush. Bush made it worse. You know, Bush increased the mandate. It’s a specific congressional mandate that a proportion of lending, initially from savings and loans, and then from banks, has to be to basically sub-prime borrowers. Now the purpose of this was to try and increase home ownership among ethnic minorities.
The idea that the financial crisis came about from deregulation is a mistake. There was some deregulation in the 1990s and early 2000s, but there was a lot more re-regulation
Merryn: A nice idea.
Matt: Which is a noble aim. But the problem was it very quickly got turned into a mandate to make sure that you were doing a specific proportion of your lending to people who couldn’t pay the money back. Literally they were described as ‘Alt A’ or whatever, but they were basically sub-prime lending. You had to have a proportion of it. Now, even that didn’t cause too much of a problem until one big thing changed, and that is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were mandated to buy these loans. And they had resisted doing so for a long time, but around the mid 2000s or the early part of the last decade they were specifically mandated that they should be buying up these loans in a certain proportion again.
Now, you know, right up until the middle of 2008, people like Paul Krugman were saying: It’s not a problem. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac don’t have sub-prime loans. They have ‘Alt A’ loans. Same thing. And we now know that there was a trillion dollars’ worth of sub-prime lending, which was basically supported by… Because, you know, the banks were saying: “well, we’ll just pass these straight on to the government sponsors and enterprises”.
Merryn: So this regulation, this compulsion to make these loans, stopped the market from working because it prevented the banks from using their own analysis of credit risk when they made loans?
Matt: Basically that’s what happened. Now, you know, that doesn’t completely absolve the banks. They made a lot of things worse, and they could have analysed what was happening and seen that it would end in trouble, and they could have done a better job of lobbying against this within the thing. But the idea that it’s a bottom-up market phenomenon I think is… well, the idea that came from deregulation is really the mistake here. Because there was some deregulation in the 90s and early 2000s, but there was a lot more re-regulation. You know, the amount of regulation the banks were subject to was going up all the time.
Merryn: Well, you have experience of this yourself, Northern Rock being under huge tsunamis of…
Matt: I was chairman of Northern Rock and when I saw that… I mean, it wasn’t ridiculously overdone, the regulation, but there was a lot of it and I spent a lot of time with regulators and they would ask me many, many questions about credit risk. And they never asked questions about liquidity risk, which turned out to be the risk we were facing. Now that gave me false reassurance. It shouldn’t have done. I should have been clever enough to see through that and say: Hang on, we’re running a risk that you’re not talking about…
Merryn: Yes. But nonetheless, you make the assumption that the thing the regulators are looking at is the thing that you should be worried about.
Matt: It’s very hard for a non-executive to say to an executive: I think you’re worrying about the wrong thing, if he then replies: But the regulator’s not worried. Why are you worried about that? You know. So the danger… You know, I’m not blaming it all on regulation. Very much not, of course. But the danger is that regulation can actually misdirect market concern very significantly.
Merryn: And of course the…
The crash of 2008 was a crisis caused by top down interference, not bottom up emergence
Matt: And I think the crash of 2008 shows that very clearly. It was a crisis caused by top down interference, not bottom up emergence.
Merryn: And the response to it has not been less regulation or less state, but more regulation and more state.
Matt: Well, correct. You know, the trouble with all crises is that they immediately lead to calls for more regulation, and the idea that regulation has perverse incentives very rarely gets a look in, in the debates. I mean, there’s a tiny little example of this, which has nothing to do with financial markets, going on at the moment which is the over-regulation of vaping instead of cigarette smoking. Vapers are going to be hit by a directive from the European Union next year which says that every single machine must produce data on exactly the toxicological data on all the products that it produces. Cigarettes don’t have to do that.
Merryn: So why do vapers?
Matt: Because it’s a new product and because, you know, the itch to regulate a new thing is always stronger. And the lobbies are not strong enough, and so on.
Merryn: Okay. So the vaping lobbies will get stronger over time and be able to resist.
Matt: Well, it’s very interesting when you start writing about this, you find there’s nearly three million vapers in the UK alone. They are a surprisingly libertarian group of people, because they can see that this is a beautiful example of an emergent technology that is spectacularly good for public health, and yet the authorities are against it because it’s kind of not invented here. It came from… You know, a Chinese guy called Hon Lik came up with the first one and, you know, a few Chinese companies invented it and it spread as a consumer product. And the public health lobby says: “hang on a minute. Stopping cigarettes is our job. It’s not supposed to be done by things that are sold on the street.”
Merryn: And another area that you look at a lot is climate change and the way that regulation and attempts to prevent climate change very often end up making things a lot worse, right?
Matt: Well, we have some startling examples of this at the moment in terms of the push to go to diesel in Europe, which was very successful in terms of… I mean, I have a diesel car, and almost everybody I know does now.
Merryn: I have a diesel car.
Matt: More than half of Europeans do have diesel cars. That was specifically to reduce carbon dioxide, that policy. The policy of taxing diesel less than petrol was because diesel gets more mileage than petrol, and therefore you get less CO2. But the consequence of that was we got a lot more nitrogen oxides, a lot more particulates, and those are killing tens of thousands of Europeans every year. We think. You know, the data may not be very good on that, but it’s certainly clear that these are much more dangerous in the short term. And meanwhile the danger… You know, since we instituted that policy in 1998 there has been no increase in global temperature. Far less than predicted. There has been no change in storm stats or floods.
So the idea that climate change is necessarily the biggest threat we face and we should put everything else aside is not particularly good. Another example which is growing biofuels. 5% of the world’s grain crop goes to feeding cars rather than people these days. When that policy came in, it resulted in a big spike in food prices around 2008. That’s probably killed 200,000 people a year, as well as put more pressure on the rain forest. Are we really sure that that price is worth paying for the sake of slightly diminishing the temperature increase we might face in the 2080s or something like that? I’m not sure it is. So again top down interference in the market is often what causes the problem rather than what solves the problem.
Merryn: OK. Well, interesting. Let’s move on to another part of your book where you write about the evolution of money. And in there you talk about central banks and the way money is created, the way money is regulated, and we’ve written a bit in the past about the periods of free banking in various different countries when there have been no central banks at all. Now, to most people the idea that an economy, a financial system, a money, could run without a central bank is nuts. But you feel, and I think I agree with you, that it would be rather a better way. Why is that?
Matt: Well, because of the empirical evidence. The best example is Scotland, I think, from about 1720 through to about 1840, Scotland had no central bank. It had a group of senior banks, all of which were allowed to issue currency, and they still are. You know, you get pound notes with different banks’ names on them…
Merryn: Which English taxi drivers won’t take.
Matt: Which, indeed… Although I put one into a Tesco’s automatic till the other day just to see, and it worked. I was thrilled. I got a Scottish fiver into it…
Merryn: It’s amazing. But there is, you know, a… There is an ATM at Edinburgh airport which has a sign on it saying: English notes only.
Merryn: There is. For people heading… I’ll put it on Instagram later. For people heading south concerned that when they get to the airport their money won’t be good, you can take out only English notes at Edinburgh airport.
Till 1913, America had total inflation throughout its life of about 8%. After that, it’s had about 2000%. Now, if the job of a central bank is to control inflation, it doesn’t look like it’s worked very well
Matt: Well, the origin of this system, as you probably know, is that the… Which one was it? The Bank of Scotland supported the Jacobites, and that wasn’t very popular in 1715, and so the English set up a rival bank called the Royal Bank of Scotland, and the two competed. And then they kind of came to an arrangement, and so did the other banks. They said: Look, we’ll take each other’s notes. We’ll honour each other’s commitments. So the bank’s notes can be used from whichever bank. But only if you all behave. So they regulated each other. And there was one bank in the 1760s which behaved very badly and went on an irresponsible spree, called The Ayr Bank. The Bank of Ayr. And they all wouldn’t touch it. And it was raising money in the City of London. And so it’s quite an interesting example. It’s the exception that proves the rule, if you see what I mean.
Merryn: Yes. That that self-regulation actually worked.
Matt: And self-regulation worked beautifully. And in the 1820s there’s an attempt to bring Scottish banks under the Bank of England. Lobbied, of course, by English banks who were furious with the Scots, who were very inventive, and they were coming up with much smaller denomination notes. All sorts of other innovations were coming from Scotland. Which were kind of invading England like these £5 notes do today, and being rather popular. So the English banks lobbied against this. The Bank of England wanted to take over the Scottish banks. A man called Malachi Malagrowther wrote furious invectives against this, and actually won the argument for a while. He was actually Walter Scott. It was one of Walter Scott’s first outings, Malachi Malagrowther was his pseudonym.
Merryn: How interesting.
Matt: So there’s a lovely story there, but anyway…
Merryn: I was going to say, a ridiculous name.
Matt: Anyway, if you look at the history of central banks. And take the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve was set up in 1913…
Merryn: Before which America had free banking, right?
Matt: America had free banking, basically. Well, it had a sort of complicated thing between federal and state banks in the wake of the Civil War etc., and it kind of got messed up in various ways and Williams Jennings Bryan… There’s another story there. But, anyway, yes it did not have a central bank. Up till 1913, America had total inflation throughout its life of about 8%. After that, it’s had about 2000%. Now, if the job of a central bank is to control inflation, it doesn’t look like it’s worked very well. Which country got through the 1930s in best shape? Canada. Which had no central bank at the time, etc.
So there are many stories and, you know, we see it in the modern age. The central bank tends to be pro-cyclical. It tends to increase liquidity when things are going well and clamp down on liquidity when things are going badly. In other words exacerbate the swings. Now, whether that’s because it’s under political pressure, or because it’s misreading the signals or whatever…
Merryn: Well, it shouldn’t be under political pressure any more. All central banks are supposed to be independent…
It’s very rare that you can dismantle something. Because there’s so many vested interests in it. But you can sometimes bypass it. And the Mpesa system in Kenya is a very nice example of that.
Matt: Well, that’s true. And clearly moving towards a more independent central bank is the right way to go. And if you’ve got a system with a central bank, it’s probably very difficult to understand how you unravel that and go back to a non-central… Not having a central bank. But, you know, Bagehot’s insistence that what the central bank should be doing is a lender of last resort for liquidity problems, not for credit problems. You know, for illiquidity rather than insolvency, is surely the right recipe. And that was kind of ignored in the financial crisis…
Merryn: Well, you suggest in your book that the only reason we need central banks as lenders of the last resort is because we have central banks in the first place.
Matt: I’m afraid I think that’s true. That there’s a circularity in the argument, yes. And if we had allowed free banking to develop, evolve and become more sophisticated, we would actually be in a much better position than we’re in financially.
Merryn: So would you actually abolish the Fed, Bank of England today? Or is it now so deeply embedded in our financial systems that there’s really no way back?
Matt: I suspect there’s no way back, but I would like to… Someone to show me the brick wall at the end of the street first. In other words, it would be very interesting to explore that and see if there is a way in which you could disentangle the world from central banking.
Merryn: Or is the answer, as we’ve also discussed and you write about in your book, the rise of some kind of global parallel currency. So in Kenya of course we have MPESA, so the central bank is… Actually does Kenya have a central bank? Of course it does, but it’s not as relevant as it might be in other countries, because some 50% of transactions take place trading mobile phone minutes. Right?
Merryn: And then in the UK and elsewhere we’ve talked about the rise of bitcoin and our mutual friend Dominic Frisby has written very well about the rise of bitcoin. And if that block chain technology can be used to build a global currency, or international currency, that bypasses the currencies issued by central banks it’s possible that while we can’t get rid of the central banks, we may be able to build a parallel system that isn’t in hock to them.
Matt: I think that’s right. I think that, you know, it’s very rare that you can dismantle something. Because there’s so many vested interests in it. But you can sometimes bypass it. And the Mpesa system in Kenya is a very nice example of that. Of a parallel currency system that is basically sort of unregulated, or self-regulated if you like, that has built up through the mobile phone network. And without anybody noticing. And the Kenyan Central Bank was slow to spot it. Now, when they tried to roll that out in other African countries, the central banks kind of jumped in and said: You can’t do that. We’ve got to be able to regulate it and so on. So it hasn’t been so successful elsewhere for that reason. Bitcoin is clearly a self-verifying currency in the sense that you don’t need…
The whole point about money is you need some third party to say: This is worth what we say it is. This pound note is worth a pound. Sorry, pound notes don’t exist. This fiver is worth a fiver. That what I promise to pay the bearer and all that means on it. So it needs a third party, and the third party is Bank of England or it’s whatever but, you know, there is a third party to the transaction…
Merryn: Or the money is represented by a commodity of some kind.
There’s no doubt that the internet is going to lead to a huge evolution of money and commerce. We’ve barely scratched the surface yet
Matt: Exactly. Or the third party is the gold standard, if you like. But if you and I are doing a transaction, is there some way we can do that without a third party? In which the currency itself verifies itself. Proves that it’s worth what it says. And that’s the problem bitcoin set out to solve, and has actually rather brilliantly solved it. Now, that doesn’t make it perfect money, because it’s still got to become a store of value and a medium of exchange and all these other things that money has to achieve. So I’m not myself betting on bitcoins. I haven’t bought any or anything like that. But I think the technology behind it, the block chain technology, has all sorts of implications for disintermediating the world economy. Not just in finance but in the law, in accountancy etc. “Smart contracts” is the phrase that’s being used for this idea that using a blockchain you can… You know, you can possibly… I mean, I imagine… I get a bit hand-wavy at this point, because I don’t fully understand blockchains. Don’t really understand them at all…
Merryn: Nobody does.
Matt: But, you know…
Merryn: We rely on Dominic for that stuff.
Matt: We rely on Dominic, who does understand them. But I think the way… You know, an example to sort of get your mind jumping ahead to where we might go… Because there’s no doubt that the internet is going to lead to a huge evolution of money and commerce. We’ve barely scratched the surface yet. What it might look like is that a taxi arrives at your door that is not only driverless but ownerless. That doesn’t actually belong to anyone. It belongs to itself. Its computer has raised the money on the stockmarket to insure the taxi.
Merryn: For whose benefit?
Matt: I don’t know.
Merryn: OK, so it arrives, this driverless and ownerless taxi.
Matt: Yes. It’s cheaper than all other taxis. It’s more reliable. It’s more… knows the way.
Merryn: Yes. And I’m going to pay it how?
Matt: You put your card in, or whatever…
Merryn: Tap my card and that’s that.
Merryn: And that’s all done outside a central banking system.
Matt: Yes, exactly. And Mark Carney knows nothing about it.
Merryn: Something to add to his list.
Matt: Now, I’m not saying this is going to happen tomorrow, and I’m not saying it’s going to happen in 20 years’ time. But it might happen in 40 years’ time.
Merryn: But we want to hear… We’ve been talking a lot about, you know, the death of cash and, as you will know, central banks are very keen to get rid of cash altogether. And Andy Haldane’s speech the other day was a slight wake-up call for people who thought that this simply wasn’t possible. That a central bank could impose, effectively, a…
Matt: Very interesting speech.
Merryn: Yes. The loss… I mean, that takes away financial freedom from everybody, if cash disappears and you are forced to exchange something that you have control over, ie your leisure and your skills, for something that you then have absolutely no control over, ie money. At the moment we have some control over our own money, because we can hide it under our beds or whatever, but…
Matt: Yes, exactly.
Merryn: The death of cash would mean that our financial freedom, and effectively therefore our freedom, is completely gone. Which I think a lot of people find pretty shocking. We’ve been writing about it quite a bit…
Matt: Yes. Quite agree.
The more the central bank pushes to get rid of cash, the more it may encourage bitcoin, or bitcoin’s successor
Merryn: But that speech was a shocking moment for a lot of people. Now, if speeches like that keep being made, and if this idea keeps being pushed out there, I would have thought that the drive among the… Among private individuals to find another way of managing their financial affairs will become very strong.
Matt: I quite agree.
Merryn: And personally I would like a non-cash way to run my financial affairs that doesn’t involve me being, you know, at the beck and call of Mark Carney.
Matt: I completely agree with that. I think the reason cash survives is partly because you want something that you feel is… You can… In small transactions you don’t have to tell anyone about it. And that’s not necessarily because you’re trying to avoid tax, it’s just because you…
Merryn: We have a natural inclination to privacy.
Matt: You value your privacy. Exactly. And I think… I mean, I hadn’t really thought of this before, but the more the central bank pushes to get rid of cash, the more it may encourage not necessarily bitcoin itself, but bitcoin’s successor or some version of bitcoin. Or Mpesa or whatever. You know, you can easily imagine forms of barter re-emerging.
Merryn: Well, they do already. I mean, you see these local currencies rising up all the time. In Sardinia for example, the Sardex is a nice little local currency rising which I’ll write more about that. I think a lot of people will be interested in it. So there’s lots of…
Matt: But also AirBnB and all this kind of thing, you know? House swaps. All those sort of things. A lot of which are going to be cashless. I mean, I’m not completely starry eyed about this, and I quote Tom Haselet in the book as saying: There sure seem to be a lot of billionaires in this new sharing economy.
Merryn: Well, there are. If you have a good idea, you get to be a billionaire. And that’s a great thing, right?
Matt: Yes, exactly.
Merryn: Generally your books and your writing has an air of fabulous optimism about it. I know we’re going through difficult times globally at the moment, but you see a fabulous future ahead of us all, don’t you?
I thought it was a given that people got unhappier as they got richer. Turned out, that’s not true. There’s a correlation between wealth and happiness
Matt: But are we really going through difficult times globally at the moment? I mean, you know, sure there’s all sorts of unsolved problems and it’s not much fun if you’re in the eurozone or in Syria or whatever, but globally we are seeing extraordinary levels of prosperity, compared with anything we’ve seen before. You know, you’re seeing 11% growth in Ethiopia or something. In my lifetime, the average person on the planet has trebled his income in real terms. And that’s while the population has doubled. And they’ve increase their life expectancy by a third. And they’ve stopped burying two thirds of the children they used to bury. Which is the greatest measure of misery I can think of, is to bury a child.
Merryn: Yes, definitely the greatest.
Matt: And, you know, so these are extraordinary times and people are… When I set out to write the book The Rational Optimist, I thought I was going to have to concede that a whole bunch of things were getting worse even while most things were getting better. Happiness, for example. I thought it was a given that people were getting unhappier as they got richer. Turned out, it’s not true. That there’s a correlation between wealth and happiness within countries, between countries and within lifetimes. It’s possible to be very rich and very unhappy…
Merryn: It’s not a given.
Matt: But as I always joke, that cheers other people up. So it’s probably a good thing.
Merryn: Yes, we’d all be willing to give it a try as well, wouldn’t we?
Merryn: Matt, thank you very, very much. And the book, The Evolution of Everything. Thank you.
Matt: Thank you, Merryn.